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New York lawmakers urge CUNY to rescind commencement speaker invitation

Every year as commencement season approaches, FIRE sees and documents campaigns asking colleges and universities to revoke invitations to controversial commencement speakers. The phenomenon has become so commonplace that we even coined the phrase “disinvitation season” to describe it and created a disinvitation database to track these problematic campaigns year-round.

Sadly, we have a new entry to the database courtesy of New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind and U.S. Reps. Daniel Donovan and Lee Zeldin, who are spearheading efforts to force the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy to cancel pro-Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour’s planned May 30 commencement address.

In a letter to CUNY’s chancellor, Donovan claimed Sarsour’s “disgusting rhetoric” should “disqualify” her from being selected to offer the commencement address:

Indeed, Ms. Sarsour publicly stated that a female survivor of genital mutilation (who happens to disagree with Ms. Sarsour on many of her positions) doesn’t “deserve to be a woman.” In the same statement, Ms. Sarsour said she wishes she could take the victim’s “vagina away.” Such vile, disgusting rhetoric should be enough to disqualify Ms. Sarsour from the high honor of delivering CUNY’s commencement address.

In a New York Daily News op-ed, Hikind disregards criticisms that the disinvitation campaign undermines free speech:

This is the baffling part about CUNY’s invitation, which, if they have a shred of decency, they should withdraw.

Freedom of speech, some say. I applaud freedom of speech. But giving this type of platform — the honor of a commencement address, which every graduating student must attend — to someone who’s an apologist for terrorism is a far cry from freedom of speech. It’s incitement.

The examples of Sarsour’s speech provided by Hikind, however, do not constitute unprotected “incitement” in the legal sense, because they do not appear intended to provoke imminent unlawful action as required by the Supreme Court of the United States in Brandenburg v. Ohio. As the Court explained in Brandenburg, in order to qualify as punishable incitement, the speech must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and ... likely to incite or produce such action.”

As we explain in FIRE’s “Guide to Free Speech on Campus,” the Brandenburg case

involved a rally and speeches by members of the Ku Klux Klan, who suggested that violence against blacks and Jews might be appropriate to protect white society. Thus, the mere advocacy of violence was protected, as long as the speech was not aimed at inciting an immediate violation of the law, or was simply unlikely to do so.

Despite being incorrect that Sarsour’s speech constitutes unlawful incitement, Hikind has taken his censorship campaign to Twitter, where he tweeted:

On Facebook, Hikind posted:

Citing Hikind’s objections to Sarsour’s selection as commencement speaker, a petition is circulating on urging people to “[s]ign the petition below to support peace rather than hate; stop Linda Sarsour from spreading hate at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy commencement.”

The Zionist Organization of America has entered into the fray as well, sending a letter to U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that urges her “to call on CUNY’s School of Public Health & Health Policy to rescind Sarsour’s invitation to be the school’s commencement speaker.”

To their credit, members of the executive committee of the CUNY University Faculty Senate issued a press release defending Sarsour’s right to deliver her commencement address. Their press release concludes:

We must resist external pressure to disinvite speakers at any institution of higher learning. For the cornerstone of higher education is the maintenance of free inquiry, which entails the sharing of different viewpoints, a tolerance for diversity, and a sensitivity to the values of a humane and civilized culture – namely sustained social and community engagement. Rigorous, thoughtful debate – in the tradition of a great university – is the best answer, not censorship.

FIRE agrees wholeheartedly. Attempts to impose political litmus tests on who is permitted to speak on campuses undermine the foundation of higher education and are particularly disheartening when they come from elected officials.

We are gratified that so far, CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy has stood its ground and refused to cave to the pressure to censor Sarsour. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates if there are any developments.

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